When Is It Okay to Lie to Your Aging Parents?

Let’s face it. We all struggle with telling the truth all of the time. There are those awkward moments when your best friend asks if you like her new, loud dress and you don’t want to hurt her feelings, or the times you’ve agreed with your boss because you knew that telling him your real opinion could make life difficult at work. Those little white lies are necessary to get along, sometimes, but not without risk of unexpected or negative outcomes down the road.

When we’re young, lying to parents is a rite of passage (yes, I finished all my homework, now can I have the car keys?), often with significant consequences that teach the importance of truth-telling. But as we mature and parents age, there are some times when lying may actually be the right thing to do.

Tell the Truth As Long As Your Parents Are Mentally Capable

To be clear: It’s essential to tell your parents the truth about their health and circumstances, choices and expenses, as long as they are mentally capable of handing that information. Even if the news is deeply upsetting—such as a serious medical diagnosis—your parents have a right to know the facts. They deserve compassion and support to deal with difficult truths, but should be treated with respect as older adults.

However, if your loved one is struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia or other cognitive challenges, telling a “fiblet” instead of a painful truth may actually be therapeutic.

“Fiblets” Can Help Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Parents with Alzheimer’s

According to a recent survey of aging experts by the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers (NAPGCM), more than 90 percent of respondents said they have used or recommended telling fiblets to relieve stress and anxiety and to protect an elderly person’s self esteem, when that individual is cognitively impaired.

Among the most common situations:

  • An aging parent refuses care or assistance at home. Telling her the caregiver is there for her spouse’s benefit or another role can help the parent maintain pride and feel less anxious.
  • The parent is no longer capable of driving safely but still insists on doing so. Taking away the keys and telling him the car is in the shop for repairs can reduce conflicts.
  • The parent is very anxious about expenses, even though she has the financial resources to pay for care. Choosing not to reveal the cost of care can make the difference in getting her to accept needed service.
  • A family member has lost a job, gotten divorced, been diagnosed with a serious illness or gone to jail, and the parent would only become anxious and stressed by the news. Sheltering him from family angst is the best route if there is nothing the parent can do to help, and if he would only perseverate with worry.

You Don’t Need to Share Everything

Sometimes, with a parent struggling with Alzheimer’s, the best approach is simply not to inform her of sad news or details about her own declining health. In other cases, you may need to find a creative way of shading the truth.

For example, if your loved one asks you to see a long-dead family member, and if reminding her that the person is gone would only cause her to grieve all over again, a better approach might be either to redirect the conversation (she must have been wonderful, tell me about her) or simply to say the person is out and will return later.

“A therapeutic ‘fiblet’ is just that—it is therapeutic because it calms and reassures, reduces anxiety and protects self-esteem,” says NAPGCM President Emily Saltz. “You would use a fiblet only with parents who have a cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified geriatric care manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in geriatric care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsGCM.

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One Response to When Is It Okay to Lie to Your Aging Parents?

  1. Emily Saltz says:

    What a terrific article that has so much practical advice for families that struggle with this issue. Thanks for giving me something I can use with famlies to show them this is evidence based practice. And thanks for the shoutout!

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